Betty Aldworth – Students for Sensible Drug Policy

Betty Aldworth

Betty Aldworth, Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy talks about what it is like on the front lines in Washington D.C. fighting to ensure the continued progress of the legalization movement.

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Matthew: Hi, I’m Matthew Kind. Each week I’ll take you behind the scenes to interview the insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving legal marijuana industry. Learn more at That’s What are the five disruptive trends that will shape the cannabis industry in the next five years? Find out with your free report at That’s Now here’s your program. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” I believe this quote from Margaret Meade serves as a perfect introduction to our next guest, Betty Aldworth. Betty is the executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, commonly called SSDP. SSDP is a grassroots student led effort to end the failing war on drugs. I’m pleased to have Betty on the show today. Welcome Betty.

Betty: Matt thanks so much for having me.

Matthew: So listeners get a sense of your geography, can you tell us where you are in the world?

Betty: Yes, I’m today sitting in the Students for Sensible Drug Policy office in DC just a couple of miles from Capitol Hill.

Matthew: How cool.

Betty: And I also spend a great deal of time in Denver, my hometown. My hometown for the last 20 years anyhow.

Matthew: For listeners who have never heard of SSDP, can you tell us a little bit about it?

Betty: Sure. In 1998 we were founded by a group of students who connected across the nation from their various campuses over bulletin boards, a very early communication tool on the internet where they were able to, over the Drug Reform Network, a very specific set of bulletin boards, they were able to share their experiences, talk about why they thought the war on drugs was failing, start to build a community of students who cared about this then activate that network. We were founded in 1998 in that way, and we have been working to end the failed war on drugs ever since. We today have a network of more than 3,000 students on almost 250 campuses nationwide and a handful of international campuses as well. We also have about 30,000 alumni members who have come through the SSDP program including some of the most prominent members, prominent leaders of the cannabis industry.

Matthew: So Betty how did you personally get involved in Students for Sensible Drug Policy?

Betty: SSDP actually wasn’t a thing when I started college. I became involved in 2012 when I was working on the Amendment 64 campaign in Colorado, and at that time Students for Sensible Drug Policy members were integral in helping us get the word out about the initiative, especially on campus with the young people. And earlier this year I took over as executive director here after spending a year with the National Cannabis Industry Association. I’ve been doing drug policy and marijuana policy work for about five years.

Matthew: Okay and where are we right now in the push to end the war on drugs and adopt a sensible policy?

Betty: Certainly much further than any of us had imagined at this point I think, even the most optimistic. The national conversation about the war on drugs is really shifting and significantly is right now. People broadly are recognizing that the war on drugs is a failure, that criminalizing drug users does nothing to actually help them in their individual situations, and also significantly harms communities. Especially communities of color and communities of low income. In that recognition, people are realizing that the negative impacts on the war on drugs reach so much further than they ever imagined, and they are starting to stand up and say no more. A very, very small percentage of Americans actually support the war on drugs. I believe the last poll that I saw was about 4 percent. Everyone else feels that it is either a tremendous failure or a marginal failure. We just have got to get politicians to come along with us in significant and substantial ways.

Matthew: Do you ever get the opportunity to speak with members of Congress or the Senate and kind of get their views of how they really feel about it and what could be done to change federal laws?

Betty: Well I don’t know that I necessarily get to know how they really feel about it. But as much as I am able to have conversations with our supporters, you know, people like Representative Blumenauer out of Oregon, Representatives Polis and DeGette and Perlmutter out of Colorado. They really understand that marijuana prohibition is a total failure. And they are 100 percent in support of fixing that system and allowing states to figure out the best ways to handle marijuana within their borders. Some of them are more progressive than others. I think though that much like with the end of alcohol prohibition we can assume that politicians will be the last to come along.

Matthew: Right. Now we had Brian Vicente an attorney here in Denver on the show recently, and he said that there’s so many representatives from California that he thinks once that state adopts wider legalization it could be the breaking point. What do you think about that?

Betty: Sure, I mean I think that we’re looking at a series of tipping points both in terms of the public perception and in terms of the federal approach, specifically to marijuana. There are a couple of states that once they tax and regulate or adopt medical marijuana will push the conversation forward more quickly than others. You know, smaller states have less influence. It’s going to be less important. One of the real disappointments about Florida this year and that’s the failure of that initiative to reach the 60 percent mark is that if Florida had passed, that would have been an incredible strategic victory in terms of bringing along a very large percentage of the population and a very large percentage of Congress who would then be interested in supporting their state’s ability to move the program forward. So yes, California, Florida, New York, Illinois, those are all very important states.

Matthew: And just to point out I think Florida, they needed a 60 percent vote, but they got 57 percent or 58 percent and not even the last few governors, I think the last five governors haven’t gotten a 60 percent majority. So it’s an incredible hard thing to do and just how close it came is really remarkable.

Betty: You know it’s one of those loses that you almost count as a win when it comes to how voters at least felt about it. It’s incredibly rare these days for any ballot initiative to surpass 52 percent, 56 percent anywhere. In order to reach that 60 percent threshold that would have been quite a significant lift.

Matthew: Is there a formal cannabis lobby in DC that represents businesses?

Betty: Of course. You know for many years Drug Policy Alliance, Marijuana Policy Project, Americans for Safe Access and others have been working on Capitol Hill to shift the conversation around cannabis in general. But since 2011 the National Cannabis Industry Association, for which I worked last year, has been specifically focused on the issues for cannabis businesses inking protection from the federal government and tax issues that are mostly relevant to businesses.

Matthew: What is the response you get from law enforcement about your efforts for a sensible drug policy?

Betty: Well there is one organization out there, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, that is bring together those members of law enforcement who are outspoken against the war on drugs. And many times those folks though are retired because that’s the point at which they have the freedom to speak out. There are Progressive Sheriffs. For example the King County Sheriff up in Seattle who is adamantly against marijuana prohibition and takes fairly progressive approaches to the drug war generally. But as much as we get a great deal of support from beat cops and those in lower level positions, it’s very difficult for a law enforcement officer at a higher level position in their department to come out in support of drug policy or forum. It’s a very political statement unfortunately still in police departments and sheriffs’ departments across America. So that’s a difficulty. But when we were out campaigning for Initiative 71 waving signs here in DC every cop car that drove passed us, every marked car that drove passed us we were getting a honk and a wave.

Matthew: Nice.

Betty: So clearly there’s a great deal of support, you know, police officers just as well as anyone else understands that marijuana prohibition is a failure and waste of their resources. They don’t want to be doing this job to bust people for using drugs. So they tend to support on that level. And in fact I was having a conversation with a retired sheriff a couple of weeks ago in my hometown who understands the failures of the drug war so well that he was actually able to arise me a little bit by making a joke about the gateway effect which I took seriously. So we do get a great deal of support from those members of law enforcement who are free to talk about it.

Matthew: One thing I would like to point out too is that there is prison guard unions that are extremely powerful, particularly in California, that have a vested interest in seeing prohibition continue for cannabis, and you know I encourage listeners to support representatives that are aware of this fact and are trying too. And prison guards pull in the political process. Have you seen or heard anything around that at all?

Betty: We talk all the time as performers about the fact that marijuana and marijuana prohibition leads people down a path that traps them in the criminal justice system. And you know we can’t for moment be so naïve as to think that the people who benefit from that system aren’t as aware of that issue as we are. Whether that’s a prison guard union or a private prison company or a private prison advocacy organizations here in DC, they all understand that as well as we do. And they will be, I think, among our most formable allies when it comes to trying to change this conversation and change the way that we’re approaching marijuana policy. Our prison industrial complex is a business, hands down. We saw after the passage of 47 in California to reduces mandatory minimums and to free many prisoners that one of the arguments against letting prisoners out as quickly as possible is it reduces the prison workforce. These are people who are getting paid pennies a day to do labor. It is hands down the new American slavery system.

Matthew: That sounds exactly like slavery.

Betty: It really does. And as advocates and as entrepreneurs we have a responsibility to ensure that we are remembering that there are still people who are trapped in this system, and we are responsible for making a better world for them and getting them out of prison and rehabilitated. And that’s one of the reasons that I advocate strongly for state laws that don’t disallow with criminal convictions for drug use, possession or low level distribution to participate in the cannabis industry. And I advocate strongly for businesses to hire formerly incarcerated people.

Matthew: Great point. I want to ask you who would be the best presidential candidate in 2016, but I think that’s somewhat of a polarizing issue. So maybe you could describe what characteristics a good presidential candidate would have around cannabis.

Betty: I think that the most important thing is finding a candidate to support who really fundamentally understands that prohibition is a failed policy. Who is willing to look objectively at the evidence and not be swayed by the political, the overtly political influences that are holding back our current efforts for reform. One of the things that’s really interesting about the Obama presidency in particular and that isn’t talked about very often is that the Affordable Care Act is actually one of the most significant drug policy reforms of the last 40 years in that it puts treatment for drug misuse into the mental health context in a much more significant way than any other policy shift. Unfortunately we also see with the Obama administration a lot of lip service given to focusing on treatment in the priorities of the Department of Justice and the DEA and out of the office of the Drug Czar where they’re actually still spending much more effort and energy on supply reduction rather than demand reduction. So we need a presidential candidate and leaders in general who really understand that effective methods for reducing demand are much more critical than trying to fight supply. Because if there is a demand, someone will be ready to meet it whether it is criminalized or not.

Matthew: Sometimes we as individuals may feel a little bit discouraged or powerless when trying to affect changes in DC, but you seen some amazing examples of how small groups of students can really have an impact. Can you give us an example of how students are having impact in changing the conversation?

Betty: Sure. Students for Sensible Drug Policy itself was founded to dismantle the drug policy related pieces of the HEA, the Higher Education Act. Many listeners should be familiar with these policies which divorce students who have drug convictions on their record from being able to access financial aid. I mean if that’s not a perfect example of how the drug war keeps people down, I don’t know what is. You get busted for pot on graduation night from high school and you can’t get financial aid. That ruins a person’s life potentially. So over our first eight years we worked on fixing that provision. Is it perfect, no, but we gained a major victory in 2006 when the HEA was substantially changed to allow those students to access federal funding for higher education. That’s one great example. It took only eight years which I know sounds like a really long time, but that is… in Washington that’s almost light speed, especially these days. We also had a lobby day a couple of months ago and our efforts really did educate a number of offices, congressional offices on the issues that are facing students. And we were able to influence a number of representatives to consider signing on to the Smarter Sentencing Act, which is reducing mandatory minimums across the board in order to allow judges and juries more flexibility.

Matthew: Now I’m sure you’re familiar with Portugal’s drug policy. They have somewhat of an unorthodox but effective drug policy. Can you tell us a little bit about that and any pros that you see that we can adopt from them?

Betty: Yeah so about 12 or 13 years ago Portugal decriminalized all drugs across the board, use and possession, not distribution. So drug users are no longer criminalized, no longer put into jail or prison for their use or abuse. And what we’ve seen over the course of the past decade or so is that drug use rates in Portugal have dropped to the lowest level of any European Union country, and drug misuse rates have basically been cut in half across the board.

Matthew: Wow.

Betty: Yeah, I know it’s an incredibly powerful example of what taking a health based approach will do. So when someone is found by the police to have a problem with drugs in Portugal they aren’t put into prison, they are given the option to go into non-coercive treatment, and that is really the core piece of how we best approach drug use, drug misuse from a harm reduction prospective is allowing people to enter treatment when they are ready. And when you do that you remove a great number of the social and community negative impacts of drug use and misuse.

Matthew: Great point. I think that’s something people really need to understand is that if we arrest someone that’s an addict, we’ve just criminalized an addict. We haven’t solved the addiction problem. So really happy to hear that about Portugal. Hope we can steal some best practices from them.

Betty: Well you know, Matt, the Global Commission on Drugs recently released a report, and this is Kofi Annan and Richard Branson and former presidents of various Latin American countries, recommending a new global approach on drugs that focuses on regulation based on actual harm and decriminalization across the board. Focusing on treatment, and making drug use when people are going to engage in it safer.

Matthew: What big events do you see coming down the pipe that we should be aware of either in DC or the state level or even internationally?

Betty: Sure, 2016 of course is going to be a huge year for marijuana policy reform at the ballot box. And in the coming years we can expect to see a handful of states take up marijuana policy reforms in the legislature. I think that there’s general consensus that as long as we continue to build a responsible, accountable and transparent marijuana industry that we will be able to see these reforms continue to move forward in other states. There’s also the question of what the federal government is going to do about the marijuana question, and that will be very interesting in the coming years. The question has been batted back and forth between Congress and the Department of Justice and the Executive Branch more generally around marijuana rescheduling. There’s even a court case going on right now that will address the question of rescheduling. So these are all major events to watch. We also have coming up in 2016 in New York City at the UN, the UN General Assembly special session on drugs. This is a great opportunity for the UN to look again at drug policy treaties that govern international drug policy. And one of the really interesting things for us as Americans is that the US has been driving the drug war globally for 40 years, but we’re also right now leading, along with Uruguay and Chile and other countries that are considering lessening penalties or even taxing and regulating marijuana, we are now leading the dismantling as well. And I think it’s incumbent on us to make sure that our voices are very loud and saying listen, this is a failed policy globally. It’s not okay that we can go buy marijuana legally in Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska and Uruguay, but in some countries possession of marijuana can lead to a death penalty.

Matthew: God, that’s really an important point. I mean we got to remember, and Troy Dayton did a really good job of pointing this out at his last event, is that there’s people sitting in jail right now at this moment, thousands in this country and families that are broken apart. This is not an intellectual argument. This is real consequences that have disturbing effects of people’s lives. So I really encourage them to support SSDP. In a closing Betty, what’s the best way for listeners to learn more about SSDP?

Betty: Sure. I would invite anyone to visit our website or, where you can learn much more about the work that we’re doing to dismantle the war on drugs. And for those listeners who are members of the cannabis industry, we will be launching a job board as well as a new internship program so the students in SSDP are able to bring the skills and values that they learn while they’re with us to the (24.14 unclear) marijuana industry and make sure to create these accountable, responsible and transparent business that will be looking to right some of these wrongs. So that’s an opportunity for businesses to support out work and our individual students. We also have something called the Sensible Society. There are many businesses and individuals who are supporting us on a monthly basis with donations ranging from $25 to $500 a month or more that are enabling us to do the work of supporting these 3,000 students nationwide and really pushing the envelope on the question.

Matthew: Betty, are there any businesses out there that are really helping SSDP that you would like to give a shout out to?

Betty: Oh absolutely. We get such great support from some really wonderful members of the cannabis industry, and there are quite a few. So bear with me for a moment. We have CannInsure Insurance Advisors, Idea 420, Dixie Elixirs for some national groups as well as the Vicente Sederberg of course, the ArcView Group and Troy and Michael from the ArcView Group, and Greenbridge Corporate Council. A couple of dispensaries out in California including Tahoe Wellness Center, Berkley Patients Group, Spark and Harbor Side Health Center. In the Denver area we have Terpene Care Station. Let’s see, we’ve also got Good Chemistry and the Farm in Boulder. Those are some of the dispensaries that are wonderfully helpful for us. James Sladdock [ph] at Med West in California and so many others who have just done such an incredible job of supporting us this year. But I really have to give a big thanks to Idea 420. They’ve done a wonderful job of incorporating SSDP into their (26.18 unclear) plan this year and become one of our most significant supporters.

Matthew: Well thanks so much Betty for being on the show. We really appreciate it.

Betty: Oh it’s such a pleasure, Matt. Thank you so much. It’s a great show. I’m really excited.

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